Southern Food: All You Can Eat

This Land is My Land

Saturday 14 March 2009, by Guy Debailleul

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Wealthy states and multinational
corporations are buying up long-term
leases on sizeable tracts of farmland
in developing countries. Inspired by
the recent food crisis, it has become a
veritable bonanza that reeks of colonialism
and risks disastrous consequences.

Saudi Arabia has gained control of around
1.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia,
which is the equivalent of approximately
three quarters of Québec’s cropland.

Together with the United Arab Emirates,
Saudi Arabia has also appropriated 1.4
million hectares in countries like Pakistan
and Sudan. The Persian Gulf states have
their sights set on Turkey, Kazakhstan,
Cambodia, the Philippines, and Uganda.

The objective is to guarantee the supply of
cereals to those investing countries whose
water scarcity limits their agricultural

In Tanzania, over the course of less than
a year, international producers of biofuels
have acquired 11 million hectares—
practically an eighth of the country— to
grow plants that will produce biofuels
destined for export. Among them is the

British company Sunbiofuels, which has
acquired over 40,000 hectares in order
to cultivate jatropha for energy production
after having ousted the farmers, who
themselves received scant compensation.

As the Financial Times pointed out when
it reported the event, it will be very difficult
for the Tanzanian government to recover
this land for food production since the
lease is valid for 99 years.

In Madagascar, the South Korean
company Daewoo had negotiated the 99-
year lease of nearly one and a half million
hectares with the Malagasy government.

The plan was to cultivate corn, with a
targeted annual production of 5.5 million
tonnes in 2023 intended for export to
South Korea. This Asian state currently
imports 11 million tonnes of corn each
year, mainly from the United States. To
this was added the production of palm oil.

To bring the project to fruition, Daewoo
intended to bring the majority of its
workforce from South Africa. The anger
provoked by revelations surrounding
the agreement between the corporation
and the Malagasy government, and the
arrogant attitude the company displayed
when justifying its approach, put an end
to the plan.

These examples represent only a small
sample in a worldwide phenomenon
involving governments, corporations, and
investment trusts. The buyers include
European countries (the United Kingdom,
Sweden), as well as Asian states (China,
South Korea, Japan), and oil-exporting
countries (the Persian Gulf states, Libya)
along with companies from emerging
states (Brazil, India). The targeted
countries are also dispersed over nearly
every continent: Latin America (Paraguay,
Argentina), Asia (Burma, Cambodia,
Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand,
Vietnam), Central Europe (Ukraine), Africa
(Senegal, Mali, Malawi, Uganda, Sudan,

These non-exhaustive lists only serve to
illustrate a trend that is taking on worrying
proportions. Countries and companies
that invest in— and control large tracts
of— agricultural land are guided by various
motives: to guarantee food security, to
increase the production of biofuels, or
simply, in an era of financial crisis, to invest
in what appears to be the best long-term
venture for speculative funds.

Almost 50 years after the great waves
of decolonization, the agricultural land
in developing countries is increasingly
becoming the subject of a new takeover
by foreign interests. It was the rejection of
a new colonialism that scuttled the South
Korean project in Madagascar, but even
if this retreat shows that mobilization may
impede the success of such projects, it is
currently a mere exception in a movement
that is gaining momentum.

If the agricultural legacy of developing
countries gives rise to such concessions,
it is because of the dependence of these
countries on foreign investment. It is easy
to paint the economic benefits in glowing
colours to local farmers, particularly in
regards to the dissemination of new
agricultural practices and technologies.

This is especially true since many
countries still have not adopted a land
tenure system that provides title deeds
to farmers. Many of them still depend on
complex and often arbitrary customary
rights for access to land. In other countries,
the control of most of the land by a tiny minority prevents farmers from having sufficient farmland on which to subsist.

In Paraguay, for instance, more than 75%
of agricultural land is owned by less than
1% of the population. In such situations of
land inequality or insecurity, it is easier to
displace the farmers in order to facilitate
large-scale projects.

In contrast, most western countries have
tended for several decades to enact
laws that are more or less restrictive on
the subject of the purchase of farmland
by foreigners. In the United States, no
fewer than 28 states have legislation
that limits opportunities for acquisition of
land by non-residents. The same is true
for the majority of Canadian provinces.
In Manitoba or Saskatchewan, a nonresident
or foreign company cannot own
more than 20 hectares of agricultural land.

There are similar restrictions in Australia,
New Zealand and some European
countries. The more vast the agricultural
land and the sparser the population, the
more obvious the need for protection,
which explains why provinces with a
high population density, like Ontario or
Québec, have not felt as threatened by
the purchase of land by foreigners.

This movement towards the acquisition
of agricultural land by foreign interests,
whether they are from Western states,
Gulf states, or emerging states, has an
undeniable air of neo-colonialism. At a
time when— thanks to the food crisis— the
international community finally realizes that
it has neglected agriculture in developing
countries for too long, the confiscation
of part of their land holdings to meet the
needs of the richest countries, sends
a signal that is decidedly inconsistent
with the efforts to give new impetus to
agriculture in poor countries through
cooperation and mobilization.

In recent trade negotiations of the Doha
Round, many developing countries have
begun to counter the principle of trade
liberalization with that of food sovereignty.

Accordingly, they are claiming the right
to define and implement the agricultural
policies that they deem appropriate and to
take the necessary steps to protect their
agricultural resources. It is under these
conditions that their own food security will
be possible. Faced with this rush towards
their agricultural land, food sovereignty
means finding ways to control the basic
resource necessary to meet food needs,
namely farmland.

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